Hot on the Web
Lost in Cyberspace
Online San Diego
Feature Articles
Book Reviews and Reading Diary
Music Reviews
Favorite quotates
Contact Me

Hot on the Web

Going overseas to exercise your legal rights

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on December 22, 2006
(Issue 2451, Gotta Have It Tech Toys)

It's a sad thing, but despite the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that you and I – and all American citizens – have the legal right to back up any soft materials we purchase, it's currently illegal to distribute software that allows you to make backup copies of your DVDs.

Confounding? Undoubtedly. Contradictory? You bet. Likely to be overturned? Eventually.

A few years ago, a programmer wrote a little public domain utility that would let owners of Linux computers view DVDs on Linux computers with DVD drives. Other programmers quickly took that code and issued a freeware program called DeCSS that let Windows computers copy DVD contents to their hard drives.

In order to view the video files on a standard DVD, the software has to decode it – and having an open-source solution with that capability panicked the suits in Hollywood. It meant that their encoding scheme for DVDs was basically broken.

See, like a CD, a DVD's files are digital – meaning they can be copied and recopied without loss of quality. A VHS tape (or Betamax!) or even a LaserDisc are all analog formats – meaning every time you make a copy, you lose a little bit of fidelity.

So if you wanted to make a backup copy of your old VHS copy of "Cannonball Run" in case the original got ruined, Hollywood didn't care.

But make a backup DVD of the same movie?

All of a sudden, Hollywood's suits were arguing that copyright law itself was at risk (even though DVD piracy was far more rampant in huge portions of the Third World than legitimate sales, and all done without DeCSS).

And so they sued the author of the DeCSS software that allowed Windows owners to copy DVDs on their PCs, as well as several Web sites that were distributing it for free. They found a judge whose knowledge of copyright law and Supreme Court precedent was about as deep as his understanding of programming, and he issued a ruling making it illegal to distribute or even link to sites distributing DeCSS.

All in full defiance of Supreme Court precedent.

No appeal of this ridiculous decision has yet made it to the Supreme Court, so it is – for now – the law of the land.

And so despite the proliferation of DVD burners on PCs and Macs (and even DVD burners for home entertainment systems), you can't buy or download software that would allow you to make a copy of the DVDs you've legally purchased.

(The justification for allowing personal copies of legally purchased DVDs is that if you pay for a movie or CD you have a right to continue viewing it in perpetuity; that just because the original copy goes bad doesn't mean you should have to re-purchase it.)

Exercising your rights

Making a backup copy of your legally purchased DVDs takes two steps, and thus two software programs.

First, you need to be able to read the data on the DVD so it can be copied from the disc.

A public domain program called "DVD Decrypter" does this. Searching for it on any popular search engine will bring up numerous sites where it is available for free download. Just not any in the US of A, where the above judge's decision still holds sway.

I only found copies for Windows, but it is likely there are similar programs for Macs and Linux computers.

This program reads the contents of any DVD. (I was able to copy a European disc, even though it is Region 2 and I can't view the original or the copy in my DVD player.) It then copies them to your hard drive.

The second program you need is a program to compress the contents of the DVD – because a commercial DVD has a greater storage capacity than a recordable DVD you can burn in your PC.

A good solution for this process is "DVD Shrink." Just point it to the contents of the DVD you copied to your hard drive with DVD Decryptor, and it will compress them to fit your burnable DVD.

In fact, DVD Shrink will burn the CD for you as it compresses the files.

The DVD copy I made of a comedy DVD I purchased was very good, even though it had been compressed. On my high-definition wide-screen television, I couldn't tell the difference in video quality between the original and the copy.

I've now packed the copy away in a safe place, just in case.

The future

While the trial judge who banned DeCSS bought into the argument that making personal backup copies of legitimately purchased DVDs was somehow a violation of copyright law, that reasoning isn't likely to survive much longer into the dawning era of broadband entertainment downloads we're entering now.

With more and more folks purchasing movies not on physical DVDs, but as downloads from iTunes and other online content providers, what court will buy arguments that you don't have a right to back up your hard drive?

In fact, since Apple's iTunes expressly does not allow future downloads of purchased music or videos in the case that your hard drive crashes, Apple urges all iTunes purchasers to back the purchases up – either to CD-ROM, DVD-ROM or another hard drive.

How that's any different than backing your DVD up to your hard drive or another DVD is beyond me.